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WebMemo #639 on Asia

January 12, 2005

Tsunamis Do Not Trump Sovereignty

By

The liberal left is shocked to discover that the Asian tsunami didn't wrest sovereignty of Aceh from Indonesia and turn it over to the United Nations, foreign aid workers, NGOs, and other self-appointed do-gooders. Depending on what reports you read, the various aid organizations have been "dismayed," "concerned," and "skeptical" of a sovereign country with a democratically elected government exerting its rights in a time of national emergency.

 

The tsunami changed many things in Indonesia. Coastal cities and villages were destroyed and whole islands were physically moved. And in a radical shift, the Indonesian government permitted NGO workers and foreign militaries access to parts of the country that had been previously been closed to all foreign presence. But the tsunami didn't change the rights, duties, and responsibilities of the Indonesian government. Whatever outsiders think of Indonesia's response to the tsunami, they should respect the country's sovereignty and not presume to engage in long-term nation building when it is against the government's wishes.

 

In Aceh, the Indonesian government has two terrible responsibilities, one recent and one long-standing. Most immediately, it must rescue the province from the disaster wrought by the tsunami. Aceh was the hardest hit, in terms of loss of life and destruction of property, and without relief efforts there, many more may die. Preventing this requires that Indonesia work with foreign NGOs and engage with donor countries far more than it has in the past.

 

Thus the international outcry this week when the county announced that it would limit the access of aid workers to only two cities in the region, Banda Aceh and Meulaboh. Aid workers seeking to visit the countryside will need government permission, which could be difficult to come by.

 

The government's second responsibility is the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the country. Aceh is home of the Free Aceh Movement, or GAM, a terrorist insurgency intent on independence for the province. In recent years, GAM has become increasingly violent, targeting civilians in its terrorist operations. According to a U.S. State Department human rights report, GAM has carried out "grave abuses including murder, kidnapping, and extortion." Since 2000, GAM has been engaged in ethnic cleansing and in two years managed to force 50,000 civilians from their homes in Aceh. The group has trained with Jemaah Islamiyah, an al Qaeda affiliate, and with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, a separatist group in the Philippines.

 

The Indonesian government takes very seriously its responsibility to put down GAM, and despite the tsunami, fighting has continued to rage. The Tsunami drove GAM fighters from their mountain redoubts and to the ravaged coastal areas where their supporters live, and several gun battles have broken out in recent days.

 

Some NGOs claim that the Indonesian military, known by its acronym TNI, wants to keep aid workers out while it clamps down on GAM and its supporters. But TNI does have legitimate safety concerns for people working in GAM-controlled areas. First, GAM does kidnap people for ransom and has kidnapped foreigners. For aid workers lucky enough not to be kidnapped, extortion is still quite likely. Like any insurgency, raising money is key, and collecting "taxes" from foreigners traveling through GAM-controlled area is a favorite tactic.

 

Second, open fighting presents an obvious danger to aid workers. Even a small number of casualties could jeopardize relief operations elsewhere in the country, as well as foreign aid.

 

But that's not to say that TNI's motives are wholly pure. Indonesia's military has a long history of corruption. Despite reforms, it continues to engage in illegal logging, poaching, drug smuggling, and protection rackets. These off-budget activities make up about 70 percent of TNI's income. Bribery is endemic, and thanks to the current crisis, poorly paid soldiers are supplementing their incomes by selling donated food supplies to the needy, according to several reports.

 

In response, aid organizations and some foreign governments are questioning the TNI's motives in restricting access to parts of Aceh and setting a 3-month limit on foreign troops delivering aid. There is "considerable skepticism" among relief groups, reports the New York Times, that the restrictions are needed.

 

But all this "concern" may be premature. Aside from petty theft, there has been no evidence so far that the TNI has taken advantage of the Tsunami's aftermath to rout GAM or withhold supplies from its civilian supporters.

 

Still, some groups like Human Rights Watch are already agitating for outside pressure on Indonesia to bar TNI from relief distribution and allow short-term aid to morph into long-term development.

 

But that's just what GAM wants. The government's restrictions are "merely a move aimed at scaring off international aid workers," GAM commander Muzakkir Manaf said in a press statement. GAM's aim is to keep the TNI at bay while it rebuilds its base of support and quietly unravels the government's recent gains.

 

After decades of authoritarian rule, Indonesia has only recently emerged as the largest Muslim democracy and a key ally in the war on terror. Its transformation into a fully modern democracy is by no means complete, but the gains it has made in just a few short years are staggering. And the country's success so far in coordinating tsunami relief may mark a turning point in the reform of its military and police forces.

 

As a democracy fighting a militant insurgency while recovering from one of the world's most destructive natural disasters, Indonesia faces tough choices. Critics downplay Indonesia's progress and promise when they disrespect its sovereignty. The most fruitful course for now will be to accept the government's restrictions and get on with the business of helping refugees, not nation building.

 

Dana R. Dillon is Senior Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

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